By: Tania Bhattacharya
Twenty-first of February is an important annual date for the peoples of both, Bangladesh, and West Bengal. On that day in nineteen fifty two, students of East Pakistan’s institutions of knowledge like Dhaka Medical College, had been mercilessly struck down, after they were fired upon by the soldiers of West Pakistan. Their crime? Bangla, the indigenous mother-tongue of all Bengalis, irrespective of religion and location, had been the prime focus of East Pakistan’s ‘Language Movement’. The seat of power, despite the East’s relatively larger demographic, had been, for all means and purposes, firmly lodged in the West, separated from the Eastern wing, by thousands of miles of territory belonging to the state of independent India. West Pakistan wielded absolute power over Pakistan’s army, its internal security, administration and the judicial system. Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Saraiki, and Sindhi, were the most recognized and respected lingua franca. Bengali was deemed by the West, to be a ‘Pagan’ language, the tongue of millions of ‘kaffirs’ that worshipped a plenitude of deities.
The Bengalis, a people deeply protective of their cultural heritage, cutting across religious lines, took offense, and thus commenced the movement for the restoration of Bangla, as the legitimate representative of the East Bengalis. What followed, is well known, to South Asian History, enthusiasts. Exploiting the opportunity that had presented itself, and asphyxiated by more than ten million Bengali refugees who had migrated to eastern India in wake of ‘Operation Searchlight’ imposed by West Pakistan on its eastern wing, India had invaded the latter in the early December of 1971. The shortest war of modern history, had ended a fortnight later, with the emergence of an independent homeland, for all Bengali speaking peoples: Bangladesh.
Bangladesh turns forty-seven on the twenty sixth of March this year. Over the last nearly five decades, much water has flown under the bridge. Significantly, it has taken along with it, a bulk of the initial bonhomie and camaraderie, that Bangladesh and India shared with one another. From trustworthy allies, the two neighbours, have now entered a phase of grudging respect, but that too is often found in suspended animation, once anti-Indian regimes come to power in the other country. There are a number of reasons why India and Bangladesh have experienced a souring of relations over time, and much to the ordinary Indian’s chagrin, not all of the blame can be laid at our eastern neighbour’s door.
- A) WHAT’S IN A PICTURE? EVERYTHING!
Any patriotic Indian, often ruminates fondly over a well circulated photo that emerged in the December of 1971. It was taken during the capitulation of the West Pakistan army to India. The photo is held up by Indian nationalists, like a trophy and proudly referred to as the ultimate symbol of India’s crushing of Pakistan. This historic photo in question, has a sombre Lt. Gen. J.S. Arora, looking on, as a visibly demoralized Gen. A.A.K. Niazi of Pakistan signs the document of surrender. A sea of khaki and army green dot the backdrop of the image. Smiling soldiers of the Indian Defence Forces, can be seen interspersed between high ranking members of the Pakistan Army. However, remarkably, missing from the image, is the presence of the very people, who had had to sacrifice their life, their limb, and their precious dignity, to make their own independence happen.
As time has passed, millions of Bangladeshis have taken stock of the historic footage that seemed to signal their freedom day, and yet, they have asked: “Where are our people?” Yes, indeed. It is a photograph that, once the euphoria had died down, was bound to reveal its troubling nature. It may have been the defining moment for our own military men, but for the patriots within our newly born neighbour, this image is one of being slighted; of being overlooked, and insulted. Indians should have realized awhile back, that parading the said photo, was not a wise thing to do. The newly liberated nation, did not and to this day, cannot claim the image as their own, due to the complete absence of any East Bengali presence.
- B) WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE, BUT NOT A DROP TO DRINK!
In 1996, Bangladesh and India had signed a treaty over the sharing of river waters. The agreement – known as the Ganges Treaty – had promised to equally divide the volume of river waters shared by the two nations. Waters of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna mega-basin, constitute the globe’s second largest hydraulic region, with a high population density inhabiting its banks. Simply put, the so-called division of water, is neither fair, and nor useful, to Bangladeshis. Through the Farakka Barrage, India, with its advanced systems of harvesting trans-boundary water, virtually controls the upstream flow of currents, which it then utilises without a care for the consequences being experienced by the people that live around the downstream currents of the barrage. As a result, Bangladesh has become a victim of environmental degradation which is a direct consequence of India’s water harvesting policy and techniques. Flora and Fauna, especially a variety of edible fish, important to our eastern neighbour, have either drastically lessened, or come close to extinction, due to callous and selfish, Indian interests over river-water sharing.
- A) THREE IS A CROWD!
A fundamental problem that posited itself even before the Liberation War in East Pakistan was over, and should have been a dark indicator of what was to come, was the deluge of refugees that had escaped the porous Indo-Pak border at its eastern end, and come to stay in India, as hopeful citizens. Even though Bangladesh is itself a witness to a refugee apocalypse in the form of the Rohingyas, they do not seem to be able to join the dots between their own problem, and that of India’s, for which their homegrown, poverty-stricken population is responsible. The Indian state which has borne the brunt of our refugee crisis, has been the north-easterly one of Assam. Bordering Bangladesh, this volatile Indian region has had to absorb the vast majority of illegals that continually transgress into our territories, by paying a small bribe to the jawans of the BSF (Border Security Forces), and obtaining false ration and identity cards. Bangladesh has chosen to delude itself by claiming time and again, that the alleged social scenario is an impossibility, accusing India instead, of tainting Indo-Bangla ties with our calumnies against them. In a heart-breaking tragedy that unfolded in the Nellie town of Assam in 1983, thousands of Muslims were slain by the local Assamese, over fear of the former’s illegal alien status.
It must be acknowledged, that though a sizeable proportion of the deaths were of Indian Muslims who were unfortunately caught in the crosshairs; the remaining victims were indeed of Bangladeshi descent. The crisis could have been averted, if a national population census board had been specifically set up for the beleaguered Assam state, decades previously. But illegals from Bangladesh have been known to wade deeper into Indian territory, in hopes of a better life, and confirmed sources have located many such uprooted families living in the shanty dwellings of even megalopolises like Mumbai, which lie on the far-off western shores of India. If left unchecked, the Bangladeshi Illegal Aliens crisis, may snowball into a far greater threat than it is today. Given the pull of money, such individuals and indeed, families, may be willing to join insurgency operations that are threatening the fabric of unity that holds this country together.
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY!
India’s pliant and contiguous ‘ally’, on her East, may have begun by solemnly swearing to secularism, but with the passage of time, she has metamorphosed into a caricature of her own founding principles of equality. Her one-time bete noir, Pakistan, is now edging closer to her and she seems to be egging it on. When elections approach, her largest minority, the Hindu one, pass their days in fear, wary of the poll results. Irrespective of who wins at the ballot, Bangladesh’s Hindu minority is persecuted by the losing side, as if it was their fault. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, a certain section of East Pakistan, described as being the Razakars – once active in the erstwhile Indian royal kingdom of Hyderabad under the auspices of its cruel Nizam – had backed the West Pakistan regime’s crackdown on the Bengalis. In the post-war era, they have been contesting elections under the garb of the JEI or ‘Jamaat-e-Islami’.
A vast segment of their fellow citizens have indeed lent support to the JEI’s nefarious plans of defeating secularism in their nation, and engendering anti-Hindu, and anti-India policies. One is often mistaken into thinking, that the father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rohman, was sincere about preserving the tolerant fabric of his country. This is not entirely true. Just as Pakistan’s PPP (Pakistan’s Peoples Party) was once headed by Benazir Bhutto who had nobbled Islamist forces to infiltrate Indian Kashmir, while simultaneously projecting herself to be in favour of religious equality, Mujibur had gone lax on the Islamic fundamentalists of the JEI, when he realized that they had a large section of his society, in their pockets. With the assassination of Bongobondhu (Bengal’s Friend) Mujib, the Islamist army chief General Ziaur Rehman assumed power in a coup. His policies had brought Bangladesh closer to the Islamic world, and strained its relationship with its benefactor and neighbour, India.
Over the past few years, Atheist bloggers have been brutally murdered by various Islamist factions, and Muslim extremists from Pakistan have often found a haven in Bangladesh. Ansar-al-Islam, a Pakistan sponsored terror outfit operating out of Dhaka, was masquerading as the NGO ‘Small Kindness Bangladesh’. Quite recently, on the 12th of December 2018, Akayed Ullah, a Muslim Bangladeshi Islamist, had made a failed attempt to harm the subway of New York, using a pipe bomb. It would be useful to reckon, that India’s good neighbour in the East, bordering the Bay of Bengal, is a potential breeding ground for Jihadi Jacks and Janes.
CONCLUSION: If Indo-Bangla relations are to get back on track, then India will need to isolate Bangladesh from its pro-Pakistan leanings, which, more than religion, has unfortunately to do with our own high-handedness. We Indians need to formulate a fair policy over river water sharing, and deal with that country, as we do with Afghanistan. India needs to have a hands-on approach to Bangladesh’s economic and environmental problems, which it needs to consider unselfishly, from the Bangladeshi point of view. Building of hospitals, and institutions of education will lessen our neighbour’s anxiety over our intentions. There is plenty of scope for industrial development within Bangladesh, and by all means India must exploit the opportunity, but certainly not at the cost of Humanism. For, the initial bonds that the two nations had forged, was based on this one factor alone.
Last but not the least, India needs to ditch that photo from 1971. A nation’s dignity, in this case Bangladesh’s, is always priceless.
Tania is a freelance writer with a masters in defence and strategic studies, who has a wide range of interests.